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EDITORIAL: It is very distressing that local tobacco manufacturers are able to flout all the rules very easily and not only openly advertise and promote their brands, which is forbidden, but also cause a loss to the tune of Rs40 billion every year to the exchequer. According to the statutory regulatory order (SRO) of tobacco advertisement guidelines, offering incentives like free cigarette samples and other discounts is not allowed. And the health ministry law, tobacco advertisement guidelines 2009, very clearly state that tobacco advertising is completely banned and cigarette manufacturing companies cannot offer cash prizes, any kind of incentives, or gifts to enhance sales. Yet, as revealed in this newspaper, local operators are blatantly violating these rules, advertising their products, and also offering all sorts of incentives to attract buyers right under the government’s nose. They are also able to flood the market with very cheap brands, which are priced far below the minimum limit allowed under the law, and practically run all legitimate brands, which happen to follow the rules, right out of the market.

The report also cites officials representing the registered side of the business lamenting the fact that laws exist to deal with just such situations, but they are never implemented. It turns out that as many as 13 law enforcement agencies have jurisdiction over laws pertaining to the illicit cigarette trade, but they have been so wound up in infighting, lack of communication, and trying to prove the other wrong since forever that nobody even gives them a thought anymore; especially not the bad guys. All they have to do is produce low quality cigarettes, which doesn’t run into nearly as much money as setting up a proper plant, price their brands lower than anything else on the shelf, and offer everything under the sky like free motorcycles, travel tickets, etc., as bait. And since the law is the last thing they have to worry about, it’s pretty much easy pickings for them.

It’s also not very comforting that some of these illegal outlets have been allegedly traced to some parliamentarians. Since all this makes for a very serious situation, surely it calls for the most thorough investigation as well. An illegal industry is functioning at break-neck profit, breaking rules, evading taxes and hurting the national purse. It is also harming generations, especially the youth, by offering them bad quality tobacco and extremely low price and enticing them with appealing offers. Pakistan currently has the lowest priced cigarettes in the world only because relevant authorities have just got too used to not lifting a finger even as the law is torn to shreds before their eyes and thousands, perhaps millions, of people are exposed to completely unnecessary health risks like cancer.

Why has this gone on for so long? Isn’t this just another example of how too much corruption for too long has corroded the official machinery to the point of non-existence? And how does one even begin putting things like this right? Something like this can only happen, and continue to happen endlessly, when a very large number of players are in on the game. Should they all be axed at once? These are difficult but important questions that simply cannot be brushed under the carpet any longer. What purpose does having so many arms of the state serve when most of them are paralysed all of the time? And, just to make matters worse, in addition to all that is morally and legally wrong with all this, there is also the hit to the economy and very strong support provided to the black economy.

Why do all parties cry themselves hoarse about the shadow economy whenever they come to power yet none of them is prepared to really take this bull by the horns? Still, since something will have to be done, the most straightforward way would be to identify all those responsible for this racket and punish them one by one. Then the severity and surety of the punishment can then be counted on to act as a deterrent to help things along. But so far there is not even the first sign of the first practical move in such a direction.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021